Pregnant Employee Fired in Anticipation of Work Restrictions Can Sue

A nursing home jumped the gun by firing a pregnant certified nursing assistant based on work restrictions that would not begin for five weeks. Cadenas v. Butterfield Health Care II, Inc. (N.D. Ill. 2014).

The employee, Araceli Cadenas, informed Butterfield of her pregnancy in May 2012. Her original doctor’s note restricted her from lifting or pushing or pulling more than 20 pounds. Upon learning Butterfield’s light-duty program was only available to employees injured on the job, Cadenas submitted another note clarifying that her restrictions would not take effect until the 20th week of her pregnancy. She was 15 weeks pregnant at the time. Cadenas had been employed for only eight months and was not eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Butterfield told Cadenas that she could not continue working, but she could return after giving birth. Cadenas sued Butterfield for violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

The court denied Butterfield’s motion for summary judgment, allowing Cadenas’ case to go forward. The court held that although an anticipatory discharge may be appropriate in some cases due to a pregnant employee’s work restrictions, Butterfield should not have terminated Cadenas immediately, before those restrictions took effect, and without showing how the restrictions would negatively affect its business when they occurred.

This case illustrates how tricky managing pregnant employees can be. Under guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last week, this employer’s policy of limiting light-duty assignments to on-the-job injuries alone may violate the PDA. The U.S. Supreme Court will be weighing-in on pregnancy accommodation with its Young v. UPS decision next summer. In the meantime, employers should pay careful attention to pregnancy accommodation requests. At a minimum, employers must treat pregnant employees similar to employees with other temporary medical conditions. Problems typically arise when employers treat pregnant workers differently from non-pregnant workers. If your organization follows policies and practices that may do so, you should contact legal counsel to discuss those.